Things They Don’t Tell You in Law School: Night Terrors

7 May

It’s easy to equate “lawyer” with “stress,” but no one ever tells you that being a lawyer means wrecking complete havoc on any hope of peaceful sleep.  I have had sleep problems continuously for the last five years (although they have gotten a little better in the last year).  I always thought it was a personal problem.  I am not good dealing with stress.  When I was in college, I worked in Pitt’s computer labs.  I got promoted into a supervisory position, and wound up with intermittent dizzy spells.  I went to the ENT doctor and got thoroughly tested.  It turned out that my inner-ears were fine, I was just terrible with coping with stress, and it was coming out through dizzy spells.

The first year of practice isn’t too bad.  At that point, you are fresh out of law school.  If you did a lot of interning or law clerk work, you may have an idea of how to do a couple of useful things, but you’re not going to be given much responsibility.  Especially if you are working in litigation, you spend that first year writing memos and doing research, but also gradually learning the perils of the law.

By the time second year comes around, you have seen ALL OF THE WAYS YOU CAN SCREW UP THIS JOB.  You see things with missed deadlines, you’ve seen scornful opinions from judges, or even the dreaded WAIVER word.  Worse yet, you don’t have enough experience to be able to tell when a “problem” is just opposing counsel blowing smoke, when it’s actually a mistake but a minor one, or a full-on crisis.  Since you can’t tell these things apart, everything feels like an EMERGENCY.  And that’s when you start to lose sleep.  You lose a LOT of sleep.

It turns out, I’m not the only young lawyer with sleeping problems.  Once I started talking with other lawyers– both young and more seasoned– I learned that this is a huge issue for everyone in the practice.  Whether it’s problems falling asleep at night, waking up in the middle of the night for hours, or terrible law-related nightmares, everyone is having them, and no one is talking about them.

The “Greatest Hits” of my work-related sleep deprivation are:

1.  The 2am-4am wake up.  (Even worse is the 3am-5am wake up, because then when I fall back asleep around 5, I’m just getting comfortable when the 6am alarm goes off).  This usually involves me waking up in a panic, with my brain in a vise-grip around some thing I think I’ve screwed up. Sometimes that screw up existed (and if so, it’s been a minor screw up, but that doesn’t stop me from obsessing over it).  Sometimes the screw up never happened at all.  If I stay in bed, I keep thinking the same obsessive, panicked thoughts over and over, so I usually wander downstairs and read Perez Hilton until I’ve bored myself enough that I can go back to sleep.  Sometimes I actually do work during this wake up period, because I’m annoyingly alert at this time, and I know that in the morning (when I’m supposed to be doing work) I’ll be dragging from my sleep deprivation.

2.  Dreams about cases.  This always involves me dreaming about something I needed to do but completely forgot.  I have not yet had one of these dreams actually identify a real problem.  The easiest one to resolve is when I dream about a case I’m actually working on, and then I can wake up and log on remotely, and confirm to myself that whatever I’m worrying about actually isn’t a problem.  Then there are the times that I dream about cases that don’t really exist.  Those are slightly easier to sort out, because once I realize that the case isn’t real, I know there is nothing to worry about.  The worst is when I wake up but only remember very vague details about the case, or the problem I think it has, and I can’t tell if it’s real or not, so I don’t know enough information to check and see whether there is a problem, but I’m still stuck with that terrified feeling of dread.

3. The Teeth Dream.  You know the dream. The one where you feel your molars crumbling. Not just dreaming that it’s happening, but you FEEL it.  It’s the worst.

4. The Bar Exam Dream.  That you’re taking it, you’re failing it, you’re trying to take it but there are all these street closures and you can’t get to the exam site in time.  There are endless variations, and they never stop.

5.  This is a new one for me, but I’ve heard it’s also very common–The Back in School Dream.  My back in school dream involves me getting signed up for classes that start at 7am, and I show up to the first one or two, but then things keep happening or I oversleep and I keep missing them, and I never manage to make it to the Registrar to withdraw from the class, and I start panicking about how I’m possibly going to pass the final exam if I never make it to class.

What are the “Greatest Hits” of your sleep deprivation?


4 Responses to “Things They Don’t Tell You in Law School: Night Terrors”

  1. Lindsay @ LindsayInNYC May 7, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    OMG YES!!! All of this.

    Last night as I went to bed, I told my husband I’d be up before my alarm. Like always. Saturday and Sunday? No problem sleeping. Monday through Friday though and I’m up anywhere from 5 min to 30 min before my alarm goes off. EVERY morning, without fail. I slept better during law school and the bar than I have since graduating.

    And those dame teeth dreams! I *HATE* those. They’re so realistic! I wake up feeling like my teeth have crumbled out of my face.

  2. Shannon May 7, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    I had the teeth dream almost every single night beginning in my first year of law school and continuing until the day I found out I had passed the bar exam. Thankfully, I haven’t had it since. Now I just have garden variety insomnia of the “Oh-God-it’s-3-a.m.-and-I-still-haven’t-fallen-asleep” category.

    • BeezusKiddo May 7, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

      The teeth dream is THE WORST. For some strange reason I’ve never had trouble falling asleep, I just can’t ever manage to STAY asleep.

  3. Katy May 10, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    This just happened to me on Monday! I have the 2am – 4 am wakeup problem. Not all the time, just when I have a lot on my plate. And it varies from waking up panicked that I forgot to file something to waking up panicked about things that I really need to get done, even if I am planning to work on them later that day. That’s what drives me crazy – I am lying there telling my brain – I know! I’m going to work on this today! I promise! – but still, it just keeps rolling around in my mind, keeping me awake. Argh.

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